Book Summary: What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible Says On Key Ethical Issues

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What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible Says On Key Ethical Issues by John J. Collins 

Why I Read This Book 

I have long been interested in biblical history and analysis.  Going to Catholic school did not shake it out of me.  There is so much to learn about a book that inspired multiple religions

Bart Ehrman has written many books on the New Testament.  Prof. Ehrman is a bit of an evangelist himself in promoting public understanding of the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity.  Besides writing and teaching, for instance, he does regular podcasts.  

Ehrman recommended this book in one of his podcasts for those who wanted to understand what the Bible says about ethical issues.  John Collins is a professor of the Old Testament at Yale Divinity School and has published widely regarding ancient Jewish thought.  Good idea!

Brief Summary 

Collins says his “purpose in this book is to examine what the Bible actually says, what values the Bible actually affirms, on several key issues.”  

A book that is for a mainstream audience and that is a little over two hundred pages long cannot be comprehensive. He chose subjects that are both important in the Bible (not just some random reference) and to our society (not some obscure bit about proper fabric usage).

John Collins is concerned about how biblical values are applicable in today’s world.  This is not a book about faith or personal judgment calls.  It is about trying to understand what the Bible basically says.  A believer or someone just curious about understanding a book that remains very important to the way our society believes and acts will benefit.  

We learn about a few major subjects, including gender relations, marriage and family, the environment, the use of violence, and questions of social justice.  The two social justice chapters, for whatever reason, were a bit hard going.  The other chapters flow better.  

No major surprises, probably, but it’s an interesting ride.  The author retains humility in trying to find final answers.   No photographs.  That’s a deficit.  Overall, well recommended.  

A person who enjoys this book might also wish to read T.J. Wray’s book, What the Bible Really Tells Us: The Essential Guide to Biblical Literacy.  

Historical Context 

The Bible is a collection of books about Middle Eastern society ranging from around 2000 BCE to the mid-first century CE.  The final books in the New Testament were written in the 2nd Century CE.  There is no one consistent set of values.  But, some general themes are present.

The book reminds us that we need to understand the context of the times and the perspectives of the authors, both of which are often very different from our own.  

This is a good general lesson when trying to understand a range of materials.  I have reviewed books by Sumbul Ali-Karamali, which discuss the Muslim faith and its holy book.  There are a lot of misunderstandings about all types of religious beliefs.  We should tread carefully here.  

Basic Biblical Guideposts 

There are three critical frames of reference that should be kept in mind when thinking about the Bible.  These frameworks are basic understandings behind the text, a way to understand the world and our place in it.  Biblical writers saw these things differently than us.

A useful example would be the Adam and Eve story.  Many people know the basics, including how they broke the rules and were kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve, however, might seem like sympathetic people to us.  They wanted to have knowledge and get ahead. Is this not the American way?  Maybe so, but they did not live in modern times.  

The writers of the Bible have a basic understanding of creation and God’s overall role.  They believed that God made a special agreement (covenant) with the Jewish people.  And, they had a changing understanding of life and life after death.  The idea of an afterlife, including a final judgment of good and evil, only developed in the final centuries before Jesus lived.  

The Bible concerns people who live in a time and place quite different from our own.  The same applies to people in the Bible itself.  The tribes of Israel in the days of Joseph (of the “coat of many colors” fame) and Roman Palestine in the days of Augustus and Jesus were quite different.

This is a general lesson on historical context.  We should remember the same thing when reading writings from the Middle Ages.  It’s the Bible, however, so it is more sensitive.  

Faith and Values in Modern Times 

A belief” itself is having trust and confidence that something is true.  You might believe what a parent or friend says without immediate proof that it is true.  Religious belief and faith come in many shapes and sizes.  It sometimes makes it harder to objectively understand things.

Bart Ehrman has argued that the usage of historical analysis to study the Bible will not alone lead people to lose faith.  There are a variety of ways to believe, if that is what you believe, that the Bible is inspired.  I recommend Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired as an example.  

John Collins argues that people who speak about “biblical values” often translate their own personal beliefs about rightful conduct into Bible-speak.  He notes that “values” are open-ended principles that guide us, not specific laws or commandments.  There is a lot of flexibility there.  

Collins also argues that people generally determine certain things are improper, even if it is allowed in the Bible.  They might try to find a way to handwave biblical references, such as the destruction of human life in the (supposed) battles to gain control of Israel or slavery.  

Nonetheless, ultimately, most people have a modern-day focus.  This factors into the determination of the “authority” of the Bible in our everyday lives.  

If we claim that the Bible is our guide, it is helpful to do our best to truly understand what it says.  We need to make our own decisions in the end.  But, holy scriptures play an important powerful role in our lives.  This is rather clearly seen in our relationship with Israel

Bible vs. Our Own Hobby Horses

Two issues that lead to a lot of “the Bible says” are homosexuality and abortion.

The Bible says various things about gender relations.  The Ancient Middle East was not a feminist paradise.  But, it also was not a simple matter of women having no power and respect.  An analysis of biblical values should take in the whole story.  

The Bible, however, says little about abortion or homosexuality.  There is basically nothing directly about abortion though you can take some verses out of context.  There are a handful of verses total on same-sex relations.  The concept of homosexuality itself is not present.  

The determination that either is “allowed” by the Bible is a judgment call that splits modern-day Jews and Christians.  The book, however, reminds us that the Bible is just not that concerned about these issues.  Social justice?  A lot about that.  

Making sure to properly treat foreigners since Jews were repeatedly foreigners themselves?  Yes.  The meaning of Jesus Christ’s ministry? Yes.  Not much at all about those two things.  

Again, this does not mean the Bible “allows” either thing or determines how important that would be even if it did.  I personally think a proper application of the text, granting our own modern-day understandings and experiences, would allow it.  

This book will help you make your own decision.